When the medium was young, game developers didn’t have to care as much about “player buy-in”, the investment of energy, time, money, and other resources that is put in by participants. The novelty, particularly in video games, was a sufficient hook to entice people to make that investment. It was something new, something so unlike what had come before as to produce the necessary buy-in. People were practically lining up just for the privilege of trying such a thing.
But as we’ve come along, and as we begin to look critically at tabletop and video games, it’s becoming clear that player buy-in is absolutely necessary for a successful game. Where once Nintendo would get that buy in with the mere idea of a game, the power has shifted to the players. “There are so many games out there that I have my pick. Why should I choose yours?” People involved in the development of games, either those they are writing themselves, or those they’re leading as storytellers or narrators, must be mindful of this facet of gaming.
First, a little clarity. This phenomenon of investment has always existed, in one form or another. It’s what creates fans of books, or movies, or TV shows. “Did you hear about…?”, “Have you seen…?”, “You know what’s really cool…” and variants have existed for as long as we could talk about our interests, and share them. The desire to make communities around things we love is a very primal one, but with games, it’s taken a decidedly more communal turn. Books are written, produced, and finished. Feedback is submitted to an author, and perhaps he takes note of it (turning The Jew into Fagin for example), but it’s not a prerequisite for writing a novel, nor directing TV. Just ask J. J. Abrams.
Games though are an inherently collaborative experience, and investiture in them means getting something out of them than more than just entertainment. When you grab your five friends and tell them you want to run a game of Vampire: the Masquerade, what you’re saying is “I have an idea for a story I want to tell, and would love for you to help me write it.” When you become part of a guild on WoW or a corporation in EVE, you are throwing a lot more than just your time and energy into the game: you’re building something. You’re investing in something that can be transformed, which is why it’s all the more sad when those structures we build fall, as all things do in time. I’m sad I’m not playing WoW with my guild anymore, even though they’re all still my friends, and we spend a lot of time on LoL now. Some of my sweetest memories of tabletop are the outrageous stories I helped to tell with my characters and their actions, and in one notable circumstance, my character’s death.
The people who are mindful of this property of games are going to be the ones who make the most successful ones. Doublefine and inXile used reward tiers on Kickstarter to promote the idea that we weren’t just investing our money in these projects; they opened up forums for backers to come in and give their opinions as the very games are being made, and I think that’s a very wise move. It’s also something that Kickstarter encourages: you’re not only putting your money on the line for a product, but you are also given an amount of control in the production of what you’re funding. I’m not just a backer of Wasteland 2, it’s in a very real sense my game. That buy-in is, in itself, a reward, and will make for a better experience when all’s said and done.
I think, and I’ve talked about this before, that Kickstarter’s role in gaming is expanding. The ability to invest in games will become the new norm, and big name developers have got to be more responsive to their player’s wants and needs. That responsiveness is one of the reasons Valve and Riot are so successful. What’s keeping the bigger names afloat, the ones who chronically and habitually ignore the ideas and investiture of its customers, is capital. They’ve already got the buy in, but now they’re living on borrowed time. Get ready kids: it’s going to be an exciting few years.
(Next week: Part 2! What does buy-in mean for the players?)